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‘Strictly Ballroom’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 26, 1993

First of all, it's not what you think. Sure, "Strictly Ballroom" is about dancing -- specifically, the rumba. But this rousing Australian comedy is for people who hate that stuff, and for those who love it. Grabbing every backstage musical cliche by the lapels, it sends each one pirouetting, then sprawling hysterically across the floor. It's hard not to love this kind of tribute.

Actually, "Ballroom" is about its characters -- strange, down-under eccentrics who are obsessed with floorwork. For these singleminded folk, there is nothing finer than winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix State Championships. Whole lives are planned around this event. Some are also broken. But this isn't the fake, follow-your-dream poignancy of "Fame." It's too vital, outlandish -- even genuinely romantic -- for that.

Veteran dancer Mrs. Hastings (Pat Thomson) is appalled at her son and championship contender Scott (Paul Mercurio). The budding virtuoso has jettisoned old-fashioned technique for a gymnastic, unorthodox style. His subversive approach does not bode well for the contest, conservatively presided over by unscrupulous Barry Fife (Bill Hunter).

For the gravel-voiced Mrs. Hastings, winning the Grand Prix is a matter of life and death. She begs her son to play it safe. It gets worse when Scott's partner -- also terrified at his dangerous originality -- drops him for another dancer. With only weeks to go, Scott needs a quick companion. When ugly duckling Fran (Tara Morice) musters up the courage to apply, Scott is insulted. But after he grudgingly grants an audition, he changes his opinion. This bespectacled ingenue, who works out nutty routines of her own, may be just the ticket.

It's time for the dance-movie genre's dreary middle, that training-over-time section, in which the principals tread on toes, bump into each other, then achieve increasing success. Of course, teamwork is nothing without romance. And romance is nothing without active resistance from ill-wishers, including Mrs. H., jealous dancing rival Tina Sparkle (Sonia Kruger-Tayler) and Fran's protective father Rico (Antonio Vargas).

But first-time writer/director Baz Luhrmann makes these trials and tribulations more than plot-delaying tactics. This is where the characters step in. When Scott visits Fran's home, he steps into a fiesta full of Spanish relatives he hadn't bargained for. Fran's father, skeptical about the boy's abilities, demands Scott show his stuff. The over-confident Scott is surprised to find his dancing induces ridicule from the small crowd.

"Pasa doble?" says Rico, throwing off his jacket to reveal a lithe dancer's body in impeccable costume. Apparently, he was waiting for a moment like this. He immediately performs a stamping, twirling routine that blows Scott away. Now it's time for Scott to learn, while Grandma pounds a mop against the floor to keep time. In this movie, everybody dances.

There are some affecting moments between Scott and Fran. In one, the couple dances a silent, romantic number backstage, while a pair of competitors performs a "Fruit Rumba" on the other side of the curtain. But in "Ballroom," it's the supporting players that really cut the rug. Mrs. Hastings is a magnificent dragon lady, with her industrial-strength perm, ozone-alert tan and a body-hugging leotard whose garish design is best described as psychedelic vomit.

The funniest of all is Scott's henpecked father Doug (an engaging Barry Otto). A taciturn individual with a Buster Keaton expression, he is constantly seeking secluded spots in which to practice his own secret moves. To understand his technique, you have to picture the young Alec Guinness imitating Fred Astaire imitating Michael Jackson. During these superbly funny moments, as he shuffles and spins away, he quietly and craftily steals the entire movie.

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